Larry Alex Taunton (a Christian) has an interesting article in The Atlantic magazine where he undertook a project to interview young people who had become atheists. It was not meant to be a scientific survey but more a collection of individual stories, which can often provide richer insights than dry statistics. While Taunton’s goal was to find ways to create a more appealing form of Christianity, the themes that emerged from his conversations as to why young people stopped believing are interesting on their own.
They had attended church
The mission and message of their churches was vague
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
Ages 14-17 were decisive
The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism
The story of Phil resonated particularly strongly with me because it so closely paralleled my own.
Now the president of his campus’s SSA, Phil was once the president of his Methodist church’s youth group. He loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”
I myself had almost no ‘risk factors’ for becoming an atheist. I came from a very liberal Methodist family that was welcoming and warm. My departure from belief was not due to any anger or hostility to the church or Christianity. In fact, the church ministers and school chaplains I knew were wonderful people, scholarly and decent and open-minded who also not only did not evade the tough questions but seemed to relish the challenge of addressing them. I still recall them as having been powerful influences on my thinking and remember their names fondly (Rev. Arnold Cooper, Rev. Michael Cripps, and Rev, Peter Green) after so many decades.
The one risk factor I can identify was studying science and it was what caused my amicable departure from the church and belief. The concept of a god simply became increasingly nonsensical to me and jettisoning it brought a great sense of cognitive relief.